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Climate Change as a Human Security Issue in the Western Balkans

by United Nations Development Programme Serbia


Human health issues, loss of species, water supplies and agriculture production, increase of extreme events and migration


Earth’s climate is changing rapidly – this is our reality, no matter where we live on this planet. Humanity already needs more than two Earths in order to sustain its current way of life.

The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, forest fires, floods and droughts, have increased in the past 50 years. The amazon rainforest has been burning in 2019 at an unprecedented rate, emitting tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. The rate of Antarctic ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade and glaciers are retreating alarmingly in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa. The global average sea level has risen at a rate of more than 3 mm per year over the past two decades. All of this leads to deterioration of food production capacities, water supply, human health and increases the frequency and intensity of disasters in heavily populated areas,  particularly large coastal cities.

With the current average global temperature increase of approximately 1°C above the pre-industrial levels[1], it has become evident that we cannot reverse global warming during our lifetime. The struggle of our time is to keep the temperature at “well below 2°C” and as close as possible to 1.5°C warmer than before the mass production started. These are the boundaries of what we, as a species, can adapt to.

Climate change is recognized as impacting peace and security. If its effects are not mitigated or adapted to, climate change poses an increased risk to people, the economy, infrastructure, ecosystems, societies and international relations.

Human security’ was a term used by UNDP in the 1994 Human Development Report, which presented security not just as an issue of nations but one that also relates to the vulnerabilities experienced by individuals, groups and societies. The Report stated that ensuring people’s freedom from want and fear is the best pathway to global security.

The effects of climate change impact health, the environment and the economic security of individuals and communities, with the poorest and most vulnerable individuals and communities most at risk from climate change.

Through this lens, these essential components of human security – health, community, environment, livelihoods and the economy – can be adversely affected by climate change, and in turn, rising human insecurity can contribute to rising national and global conflict and insecurity.

Integrating the sustainable development goals’ (SDG) targets and the process of aligning policies and norms with the EU acquis, is the best way towards improving the human security of the countries in the region. Both of these agendas include concrete measures to mitigate the effect of climate change and adapt to the changing climate and achieving climate resilience.

By adhering to the EU 2050 long-term climate strategic targets, it might be possible to reach climate neutrality and put our societies on the Paris Climate Agreement pathway – if countries act now. Commitments under the Energy Community treaty- in particular the continuous increase of the energy efficiency and renewable energy targets- will help mitigate global climate risks. By permanent increase of climate ambitions through the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC’s) under the Paris Climate Agreement, countries can turn climate threats into development opportunities and ensure the security of their people and economies.

All this means raising the current bar of mitigation and adaptation. To shift towards a carbon neutral economy, Serbia needs to go far beyond the current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction target of 9.8% by the year 2030 compared to 1990. This also implies higher ambitions in terms of energy efficiency and greater renewable energy consumption compared to the existing target of 27% by 2020. The situation is similar in countries of the Western Balkans region. Raising these ambitions will have to be based on more investments into energy efficiency in public and residential sectors and industry, fostering renewable energy in energy and heat production, as well as by introducing circularity in the production and consumption value chains. In such a way, the societies will not only increase their economic security, but also their social security through the creation of new green jobs and the improved health and well-being of the population.

The same ambition should be invested when planning measures for enhanced resilience and adaptation to changing climate conditions and extreme weather events. The extent of damage and losses arising from the extreme weather since the year 2000 in Serbia, estimated to be worth more than 6 billion EUR, implies that all planned and so-far undertaken climate change adaptation measures have not been sufficient. In order to secure basic life support commodities, such as food, water, shelter, the countries of the Western Balkans need to elaborate and increase the ambition of climate adaptation measures within its NDCs.

Climate Change Risks for Health

Globally, climate change is predicted to cause approximately 250.000 additional deaths per year between 2020-2030 alone, due to a hunger and malnutrition, communicable/infectious diseases and heat stress.[2] Direct health costs associated with climate change are estimated at 2-4 billion USD/year by 2030.[3]

In Belgrade, during the heatwave in July 2007, a 76% increase in the mortality rate was recorded, compared to the reference mortality rate.[4] Climate induced disasters can lead to many indirect implications for human health. For instance in May 2014 – torrential floods broke the dam of the tailing landfill, causing the contamination of the groundwater and the surrounding soil. These floods directly affected healthcare facilities in 15 municipalities, leaving them temporarily closed and indirectly jeopardizing the health of the population.

The changing climate could create favorable conditions for outbreaks of vector-borne diseases (malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, etc.), as well as to the spread of waterborne diseases, such as cholera and diarrhea. For example, in Serbia, the Institute of Public Health registered the increase in the incidence of the West Nile virus in 2012 and 2013. [5]

The health challenges posed by climate change will require additional investment into analysis and prevention as well as measures which can enable mitigation and adaptation to these conditions and effects which already now seem probable.

Climate Migrants and Local Communities

Displacement due to climate change and disasters has on average affected 22.5 million people since 2008.[6] Analysis suggests that the Syrian conflict has been exacerbated by drought and worsening climate conditions.[7] Although climate-specific factors are often difficult to isolate from other environmental challenges, evidence indicates that climate change is already triggering growing population movements within and across borders. The climate displacement often occurs as a result of factors such as the increasing intensity of extreme weather events, rising sea-levels and the acceleration of environmental degradation. In 2018 alone, 17.2 million displacements of people associated with climate induced disasters were recorded in 148 countries and territories.[8] A single cyclone storm in Mozambique left more than 73,000 people homeless in March 2019.[9]

Many countries, including Serbia, have and most probably will continue to experience frequent impacts of global population displacement. Taking into account the effect which the mixed refugee and migration crisis has had on Serbia and other countries in the region (e.g. North Macedonia) in 2015-2016 period, especially on host communities which had considerable difficulties maintaining the level of services and social cohesion, one could easily deduce that climate-induced displacement shall continue to pose developmental challenges to this region. While voluntary migration largely constitutes a development opportunity- especially for depopulated areas and for balancing the labour market-climate induced displacement, as a form of involuntary displacement, shall continue to instill the same challenges as the 2015-2016 crisis.

The Threat of Climate Change to Water Supply

Serbia’s water sector is vulnerable to changing climate conditions. Although, on average, 80%, of households have access to water, the water supply systems incur significant water loss. The leakages in the system together with the indirect water subsidies continue to make water supply systems inefficient and unsustainable in the long run.

With the projected temperature increase, the requirements for water supply will increase, especially during the summer. The long-term projections indicate there will be less water accompanied by worsening water quality, which will aggravate the sanitary and hygienic conditions, particularly in rural communities.[10] This could lead to increasing discrepancy between water needs and water availability.

Effective water management in line with the EU standards, can significantly alleviate climate-induced water stress. The upfront investment costs are high, but the cost of inaction is even higher. The total cost of loss and damage encountered due to climate-induced extreme weather events since 2000, would be enough to complete all water supply and wastewater treatment systems in Serbia in line with the EU norms.

The Real Price of Fossil Fuel Energy

In Serbia, electricity is mainly produced from the combustion of low-quality domestic lignite in existing power plants.[11] That is why electricity production is one of the biggest emitters of GHG emissions.[12] Although Serbia now has 40% of installed potentials for electricity production from hydro, the expected long-term decrease in water quantity due to changing climate conditions may significantly jeopardize this potential. Also, policy that ignores externalities of energy costs is unsustainable and can lead to energy insecurity as Serbia is acceding to the EU.

Electricity prices in Serbia currently do not include either the environmental or public health related costs. These prices are indirectly subsidized as the rest of the costs are borne by society. While health costs could be assessed through health expenditures for diseases associated with air quality (e.g. lung diseases), environmental costs are already addressed through carbon pricing policies. Serbia, as well as all EU accession countries in the Western Balkans, needs to plan appropriate measures for the decarbonization of their electricity production mix. While the upfront costs of decarbonization are high, these bring long term benefits both for individuals and the economy.

According to the data from the draft Strategy, by 2050, the share of energy costs in household expenditure is projected to increase up to 20,3% according to the most advanced scenarios. Compliance with the EU standards and legislation is unavoidable according to the current government policy, which means that costs of transition must be paid. However, timely investments in climate mitigation measures, such as renewables, energy efficiency, may significantly abate/decrease these costs and elevate the burden of transition to the citizens. Also, if revenues collected from future CO2 taxes (in line with the EU legislation, namely the EU Emission Trading Scheme Directive) are returned to the economy and used to support the implementation of climate change measures (50%), to reduce labor costs (40%) and are transferred directly to poorer households, the overall cost will be additionally alleviated.

Finally, the heating of buildings and their construction emits enormous amounts of GHGs. Some 25% of total global emissions comes from buildings.[13] Combating climate change in the construction sector will require new mitigation technologies and practices, starting from new construction materials, recycling of construction waste and its reuse, to improved energy intensity of new high-performance buildings. Energy certification of buildings, as well as the construction of zero energy/carbon and energy plus buildings, is recognized in Serbia’s legislative framework.[14]

The Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture

Agricultural production could suffer significant losses by the end of this century if appropriate adaptation measures are not taken as our climate is rapidly changing.

As stated in Serbia’s first national adaptation plan (2015), several episodes of severe drought resulted in a significant decline in the yield of sugar beet and maize of up to 80% in some years, while the decrease in yield of sunflower, potato and soybeans ranged up to 40-50% per year. Droughts have cost Serbian citizens a decrease in the market, which led the price of crops to rise 10 times in a single decade (1999 – 2012). The overall loss in yield production was 4.6 billion USD in the period 1994-2014. This is without counting the losses suffered by the effects of spring frosts, hail, storms and floods.

Unfortunately, projected climate change can only worsen these trends, leading to the overall maize yield losses of approximately 52% by the end of the century, unless adequate irrigation techniques, crop protection and seeding techniques are timely applied.[15] Similarly, soybean yield can drop by approx. 20%, while sugar beet production may face serious difficulties even within the following decade. The increase of invasive species of plants and animals is expected as climate conditions change in Serbia. The pest and disease outbreaks in some of the most important crops like maize, sugar beet and orchard can lead to significant economic losses and particularly affect small-scale farmers and rural households.

Raising more resistant crops and the development of water-agriculture-pest control early warning and monitoring systems in agriculture are examples of possible ways to mitigate the uncertain future of agricultural production in Serbia. Improved irrigation would significantly increase yield, particularly in Central Serbia. In the case of optimal irrigation, the yield could be increased by up to 97% in Vojvodina and by 85% in Central Serbia. Thus, the construction of new and the maintenance of existing drainage systems can have multiple benefits in terms of reducing the risk of floods and using water abstraction for irrigation purposes. In anticipation of changing climate conditions and long-term water scarcity, there is a need to apply new water management techniques that will shift focus from water drainage towards primary retaining waters. This is an excellent example of win-win solutions that increase resilience to disasters while adapting to changing climate conditions.

How Can We Increase Resilience of the Economy and Built Infrastructure?

In the short term, climate projections for Serbia indicate high risks of heavy precipitation and related flash floods caused by the frequent occurrence of high waters. Investing in flood-resilient infrastructure and applying build-back-better principles are a matter of priority to ensure sustainable social and economic development.

Floods not only threaten rural communities in the river basin. They also affect cities, indicating the necessity to solve the protection against the waters integrally. All flood protection/disaster risk reduction planning should be a coordinated action, based on the river basin approach. By 2050, 100 – year storms will be 3-6 times more frequent. The amount of precipitation experienced in a 3 months period in 2014 in the regions of Podrinje-Kolubara, Mačva and Tamnava equals the average annual amounts recorded in the last 1000 years period. It became evident that the current state of infrastructure for flood control still makes us vulnerable to the extreme weather, but so does the unplanned construction in the river valleys. In terms of ongoing and projected rural flight, it is expected that cities will continue to grow and further occupy areas that are prone to natural disasters, such as river valleys. Appropriate integration of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction planning should become a priority. It implies further investments into integrated early warning systems and transboundary cooperation, as the most significant risks are expected in cities, especially adjacent to the rivers of Danube and Sava.

In the future, flood protection will overlap with land development even more; planning of climate adaptation measures in this area should be done by closely involving other sectors, particularly the sector of urban and physical planning. 

Forests: The Embodiment of Health, Environment and Economy

Forests are an important oxygen factory and often a great economic asset. The importance of the preservation of forests, however, lies in a myriad of other reasons – most of which are threatened either by climate change, or by unsustainable human activities. Forests provide us with a number of ecosystem services- they prevent soil erosion and landslides, improve the stability of river banks, reduce the risk of floods, are a home to biodiversity, reduce temperatures in urban areas and much more.

Forest ecosystems, known as “the planet’s lungs”, are extremely vulnerable to changing climate conditions. Forests can either be an ally in fighting climate change, or a collective victim of irrational human behavior. The deforestation and land conversion taking place in the Amazon rainforest releases up to 0.5 billion metric tons of CO2 per year, not including emissions from forest fires. This is equivalent to roughly 1% of the world’s total annual CO2 emissions. Forests are places of vast biological diversity, containing some of the plant and animal species that are the source of many medicines that we use today and hiding some of the medicines of the future that have the potential to cure even cancer. A world without forests is a serious threat to human life, health and wellbeing.

The two major threats to forests in Serbia are the groundwater levels and forest fires. The climate projections indicate that the half of all European Beech trees, the most economically valuable tree species in Serbia, will suffer mass mortality by the end of 21st century due to worsening climate conditions.[16] Increases in invasive species due to changing climates, such as the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) outbreaks in 2013 and 2014, contribute to significant economic losses in the forestry sector and reduce the number of ecosystem services that forests provide, such as the oxygen we breathe, wood we use, land we preserve, food and medicines we consume.

Approximately five thousand people are employed by the public forestry sector in Serbia,  with an additional couple of thousand employed as seasonal workers and a further 22,711 workers employed in the timber processing and distribution industry (at the beginning of 2015).[17] Their incomes and jobs are directly dependent on the status and sustainability of forests. The above-mentioned climate impacts on the forestry sector can be alleviated significantly if appropriate forest management techniques are undertaken such as combining fire protection, pest control, monitoring and afforestation.

The Western Balkans Cannot Escape Climate Change

Consequences of climate – induced disasters do not know boundaries. The Western Balkans region[1] shares the same threats caused by the alarming increase of temperature over the entire territory.

The floods of 2014 are a very good example of this. People experienced massive power and water shortages and severe damage to the infrastructure, livestock and livelihoods. Citizens and the economies of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina suffered the most severe consequences. Floods took 51 human lives in Serbia and affected approximately 1.6 million people, while in Bosnia and Herzegovina there were 25 casualties and over a million people affected, including 90,000 displaced.[18]

If some of the worst scenarios come true, the Western Balkans countries can expect a warming of up to 3 °C by mid-century. This, in combination with a noticeable change in annual accumulated precipitation, will drag this region to increased frequency and duration of heatwaves and droughts. Flooding could become more frequent, forest fires could happen more often and spread wider and faster, and the river discharge is likely to decrease, to give just a few examples. In case of no action, the extreme weather events will drag the countries towards crops failures and shortages, increased summer energy consumption, decreased water supply in summer and already recorded, spread of new diseases.[19]

Climate alerts are more than a local or national concern and should be considered in the regional and transboundary contexts.

In Serbia, agriculture, water management and forestry are the industries’ most vulnerable to changing climate conditions, as presented in the Second National Communication to the UNFCCC (2017).[20] This is an alarming fact when knowing that only agriculture accounts for 11% of Serbia’s GDP.

The evidence on climate change in Serbia is clear: significant temperature increases since mid of the 20th century, with an average trend of increasing of 0.3°C per decade[21]. The number and intensity of heatwaves are increasing: five of the hottest years since records began are since 2013, while 2018 was the hottest year on record.[22]

The poorest, such as rural low-income communities, have the least capacity to adapt and sustain themselves when natural disasters strike. For example, during the 2014 catastrophic floods in Serbia, almost all Roma settlements in 21 municipalities suffered total damage[23]. This was mainly due to the fact that those settlements had not been equipped with proper sewerage and atmospheric water drainage infrastructure. As the occurrence and intensity of flooding events have increased since 2000 in Serbia, there is a growing general trend in damage to households that are illegally constructed in the river valleys. Usually such constructions are built in riverbeds whose embankments are weakened by drilling due to the installation of structures on the water, or by cutting forests in torrents of torrential streams which increases their destructive power. Such illegally built households usually belong to the poorest members of society.

Based on the data from 2018, four years after 2014’s catastrophic floods, only 19,3% of the total property in Serbia was covered by insurance[24]. Despite severe losses and damages suffered in 2014, today only 10.5% of agricultural land in Serbia is insured. Taking into account the fact that poverty remains significantly more frequent in non-urban than in urban areas (10.5% compared to 4.9%)[25], the risks of future climate conditions for the poorest are even more evident.

During the 2014 floods, rural municipalities were the most affected, and 57% of the infrastructure (such as residential and individual houses, schools, hospitals, bridges and roads), and 43% of the productive capacity in those locales was damaged, with losses estimated at US$ 1.7 billion.[26] From the energy security aspect, it is worth mentioning that mining, energy production and energy distribution to end users were also severely affected by these extreme events, with direct damages to energy production and distribution infrastructure estimated at EUR 494 million.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the period 2000–2012, overall economic losses from droughts alone amounted to US$ 2.5 billion.

We Need Urgent Action

Difficult questions are coming to the governments of the Western Balkans about its future development. The ‘cheap’ energy achieved from burning fossil fuels hides the environmental, social and health costs. More frequent and devastating weather events will continue to sweep away the development gains in the region and perpetuate the cycle of poverty and inequality. This might be further exacerbated by unsustainable patterns of water use and agricultural production, and the increasing cost of public services, above all health.

With rising greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is occurring at rates much faster than anticipated and its effects are clearly felt worldwide. While there are positive steps in terms of the climate finance flows and the development of nationally determined contributions (NDC’s), far more ambitious plans and accelerated action are needed on mitigation and adaptation.[27]

The international community and the EU have set the stage for action for the countries of the Western Balkans region. The Global 2030 Development Agenda, the Paris Climate Agreement with its NDCs, along with the Sendai Disaster Risk Reduction Framework and the ongoing EU accession process, are tremendous opportunities for Serbia as well as other countries of the region. It can help them to create innovative and resilient sector-specific policies and actions that will provide stable and sustainable societies capable of adapting to global societal and climate challenges. Moreover, by adhering to the SDGs and EU standards, it is becoming clear that economic development and prosperity can only be achieved if they go hand in hand with the protection of environment from pollution and coping with changing climate conditions. Only such an integrated approach can prevent social insecurities arising out of food and water shortages, migrations and displacements due to the extreme weather events, diseases outbreaks due to global temperature increase etc. Eventually, our economies can only be sustainable if they aim to become carbon neutral.

Secure and resilient societies are those that timely invest in disaster risk reduction and preparedness. By bringing national disaster prevention and recovery policies to the level of local self-governments and creating enabling policy and regulatory framework for local actions, much of the losses and damages can be avoided or at least alleviated. This is why effective coordination mechanisms and stakeholder involvement into management of natural and man-made disasters is of crucial importance alongside ongoing climate emergencies.

The spiral of challenges accelerates with each year lost due to inaction. The countries of the region need to concert their efforts now to be able to cope with all the insecurities and threats which climate change is bringing.



[1] including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo (under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244/99), Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia.

[1] Alan Buis, “A Degree of Concern: Why Global Temperatures Matter”. NASA’s Global Climate Change Website, June 19 2019

[2] World Health Organization (WHO), “Climate change and fact”, WHO website, 2018.

[3] World Health Organization (WHO), “Climate change and fact”, WHO website, 2018.

[4] Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection, “Serbia’s First National Adaptation Plan”. Klimatske promene website, 2015.

[5] Ministry of Environmental Protection, “Serbia’s Second National Communication to the UNFCCC”, Klimatske promene website, 2017.

[6] United Nations Development Programme, Migration and Displacement,

[7] New York Times, Researchers Link Syrian Conflict to a Drought Made Worse by Climate Change, 2 March 2016,

[8] Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019, International Displacement Monitoring Center, 2019, Geneva, Switzerland

[9] Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019, International Displacement Monitoring Center, 2019, Geneva, Switzerland

11 Ministry of Environmental Protection, “Serbia’s Second National Communication to the UNFCCC”. Klimatske promene website, 2017.

[11] Ministry of Environmental Protection, “Serbia’s Second National Communication to the UNFCCC”, Klimatske promene website, 2017.

[12] Ministry of Environmental Protection,  “Serbia’s Second National Communication to the UNFCCC”. Klimatske promene website, 2017.

[13] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways”, 2018.

[14] The rulebook on energy efficiency of buildings and Rules on requirements, content and manner of issuing certificates on the energy properties of buildings (Official Gazette of the RS 69/2012 and 44/2018)

[15] Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection, “Serbia’s First National Adaptation Plan”. Klimatske promene website, 2015.

[16] Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection, “Serbia’s First National Adaptation Plan”. Klimatske promene website, 2015.

[17] United Nations Office for Project Services, “Action plan for supporting export of the high added value products of the Serbian wood industry”, , August 2016, Belgrade

[18] Bosnia and Herzegovina Floods 2014, Recovery Needs Assessment, the WB, UNCT and the EU; Serbia Floods 2014, the UN Serbia, EU and the WB

[19] Dr Ana Vuković, dr Mirijam Vujadinović Mandić, “Study on climate change in the Western Balkans region”. Regional Cooperation Council Secretariat, 2018. file: ///C:/Users/User/Downloads/2018-05-Study-on-Climate-Change-in-WB-2a-lowres.pdf

[20] Ministry of Environmental Protection, ”Serbia’s Second National Communication to the UNFCCC”. Klimatske promene website, 2017.

[21] Ministry of Environmental Protection, “Serbia’s Second National Communication to the UNFCCC”. Klimatske promene website, 2017.

[22]United Nations Development Programme in Serbia,  “Observed climate change in Serbia and projections of future climate based on different emission scenarios”, Klimatske promene website, 2018.

[23] OSCE Mission to Serbia, “Assessment of the Situation in Substandard Roma Settlements in 21 Municipalities in Serbia”, 2014, Novi Sad, Serbia

[24] Insurance Sector in Serbia, Third Quarter Report 2018, National Bank of Serbia, 2018, Belgrade, Serbia

[25] Government of the Republic of Serbia, Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit, “Assessment of Absolute Poverty in Serbia in 2017”, 2017,  Belgrade, Serbia

[26] Government of the Republic of Serbia, World Bank, European Union, UN Country team in Serbia,  “Serbia Floods 2014”, 2014, Belgrade, Serbia,

[27] United Nations, Report of the Secretary General, “Special edition: progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals”, Progress of goal 13 in 2019, 2019,